After Santa's overstuffed sack of Oscar qualifiers is disgorged in December, Hollywood follows by dumping its lost-cause features during the first few weeks of the new year. In recent years these have included the airplane "thriller" Turbulence (1997), Bio-Dome and Two If by Sea (1996), and Cabin Boy (1994). This year we've got Firestorm and Fallen. The latter -- a supernatural thriller with a certified Major Star, Denzel Washington -- was heavily flogged on TV throughout the holidays with an effectively creepy ad. Would that the film itself were as tightly and shrewdly constructed.
Fallen opens with Washington's character, John Hobbes, crawling through the snow, wounded. In voice-over Washington says, "Let me tell you about the time I almost died," at which point we enter flashback mode for the remainder of the proceedings. In a nameless East Coast city -- which will look awfully familiar to anyone who's ever lived in Philadelphia -- Hobbes, a police detective, has caught a vicious serial killer named Reese (Elias Koteas). At Reese's execution, the deranged killer, who seems to speak in tongues, insists on shaking Hobbes' hand. He then oddly remarks that he has other ways of getting Hobbes. Shortly after Reese's execution, another apparent serial killer starts mimicking Reese's murders, while slowly framing the detective for the crimes.
Because the setup is clearly revealed in the ads and the trailers, we won't hesitate to explain what's really going on. Reese is, in fact, possessed by the spirit of a fallen angel named Azazel. This evil spirit can leap from body to body simply by touch, with only a few people being able to shut it out. If the host dies before touching someone, no one within a thousand feet can lock out Azazel.
Not being able to enter Hobbes at the execution, Azazel has moved on to someone else. He grabs a body, lives in it for a while, kills someone, then takes a new body, killing his former host. He is able to inhabit men, women, children, pets -- pretty much any carbon-based life form except (for reasons that could have been explained better) Hobbes. Okay? Got the rules straight? Wish the filmmakers had!
How can Hobbes vanquish the demon, particularly when his partner (John Goodman) and his superior (Donald Sutherland) are beginning to suspect him of the crimes? (As soon as you see Hobbes accessing the Internet through AOL, in a really pushy product placement, you know that he lacks the resources to take on a nearly immortal demon.)
As Hobbes sees even his own family invaded by the spirit, his only ally becomes Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz), the theologian daughter of a cop who was similarly framed by Azazel three decades earlier.
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Director Gregory Hoblit (1996's Primal Fear), working from a script by Nicholas Kazan (1990's Reversal of Fortune), manages a few suspenseful scenes, but at more than two hours the film handily overstays its welcome. The technical suspense devices he uses would be more impressive if they hadn't already been done to death, both in features and on TV's The X-Files. Azazel's weirdly processed point-of-view shots date back at least as far as Michael Wadleigh's 1981 Wolfen -- itself a mess but at least an interesting mess. And Fallen's basic plot device, a body-hopping spirit, was used with far more wit in 1987's estimable The Hidden.
The ending is irritatingly tricked up, with a nasty, cynical switcheroo that I will refrain from ruining, beyond remarking that it resembles the wretched conclusion of No Way Out (1987).
Even such usually charismatic performers as Washington and Goodman are barely exploited here. The script gives them very little interesting with which to work. The only real redeeming features in Fallen are musical. One of Azazel's identifying trademarks as he hops from body to body is his attachment to singing "Time Is on My Side" (recorded famously in the Sixties by the Rolling Stones). While I'd hate to see creepiness permanently associated with such a wonderful song -- which Fallen isn't likely to accomplish -- it would be nice to think that ace songwriter-producer Jerry Ragovoy got a nice piece of change for the use of his song. And the film's orchestral score -- by hot composer Tan Dun -- is the single most original thing about the movie. It's better, and creepier, than Fallen deserves.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Written by Nicholas Kazan. Starring Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, and Embeth Davidtz.